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The quintessential dish of Canadian culture and cuisine is none other than our beloved poutine. Fries, cheese curds, and gravy — poutine is a perfect marriage of three simple but delicious ingredients that is a fan favorite across all menus, from fast food to upscale dining. Here is a behind the scenes look at the history of poutine and how it made its way from rural Quebec to nearly every establishment in the country.
Poutine, which is slang for ‘mess’ in Quebec, has not always been the iconic dish that it is today. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that its creation came about, and there are two distinct stories behind this dish.
Eddy Lainesse was a regular at a small cafe in Warwick, a rural part of Quebec. Sometime in 1957, he asked to add cheese curds to his french fries, which were served in a paper bag. The owner, Lachance, thought the idea was ridiculous because it would be so messy, but granted the man what he wished anyway. The dish became popular and customers began to order it more regularly, leaving a cheesy trail on all of the tables. Lachance decided to serve the dish on a plate rather than in a bag in order to prevent this from happening; however, customers complained that the dish went cold too quickly. Gravy came to the rescue — Lachance poured it over the top to keep the fries warm, and voila! Poutine.
Over in Drummondville, however…
Jean-Paul Roy was the owner of a drive-in restaurant and claims that he is the true creator of poutine. In 1958, he added a dish to his menu called patate-sauce, which was fries covered in a special sauce. Customers began adding cheese curds to the dish, and he finally added the updated version to his menu in 1964.
After rising in popularity in the small towns of Quebec, poutine made its way to Quebec City in 1969 and Montreal in 1983. It became a go-to street food and could be found at almost any snack bar or food truck. By the 1970s, poutine was crossing borders and appearing in countries like the US, the UK, Korea, and Russia. Its popularity continued to rise in the 1990s and well into the 2000s, and with the trend of chefs reinventing classic comfort foods like mac and cheese and the burger, it’s no wonder poutine found its way onto upscale dining menus.
The first ‘elevated’ poutine made its way onto a plate in 2002, when chef Martin Picard of the famous Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon rolled out his foie gras poutine — the perfect representation of high and low Quebecois cuisine all on one plate. Shortly thereafter, gourmet poutines became all the rage and could be found in restaurants across the country, like the lobster poutine at Bymark in Toronto and the braised beef poutine at a restaurant by Jamie Kennedy. Toppings became more inventive, and now, the variations for the dish are endless and frequently collide with other cuisines like Japanese, Italian, and Mexican (think: seared steak with sour cream, jalapeños, and salsa). The sky’s the limit when it comes to poutine, and what was once a dish of humble ingredients is now a canvas for any eater’s creation.
Poutine, whether it originated in Warwick or Drummondville, was destined to be created — with the close proximity of fromageries to the towns of Quebec, the love for squeaky cheese by the common people, and the popularity of french fries, poutine was bound to be…poutine. In the words, of Québec Premier Jean Charest, ‘I love poutine so much that I eat it as little as possible.’ Us too.
To find the best poutine spots in Toronto, check out our guide.